TO:        Duke Graduate and Professional Students 
DATE:   March 19, 2020
RE:        Change in grading policy for graduate courses, Spring 2020

We made an announcement yesterday about an immediate change in grading policy for undergraduate courses taken in Spring 2020 – notably to change the grading policy from a letter grade default to S/U default, but to also allow students who choose to receive a letter grade for any course to submit a form requesting this option.

The stress and anxiety created by the COVID-19 pandemic is the primary motivation for this change in policy. Concerns about stress and anxiety apply equally to our graduate students, indeed perhaps more so given the existence of young families for some, dislocation from familial support for others, abrupt changes in schools, childcare and work environments, and disruptions in markets generally. We understand these emotions and want to avoid adding to them.

Towards this goal, we have been working to identify a change in grading policy that can be implemented quickly and with few spillover effects or unintended consequences. As you are aware, graduate students at Duke are enrolled in a large number of degree programs that span ten schools within the university. Some of these schools, and some programs, have specific professional, accreditation and/or licensure requirements that make an (even emergency) change in grading policy difficult if not impossible to implement. At a minimum, some schools and programs need time to consult with external agencies or regulating bodies to determine the extent of flexibility that can be offered. Please see the section below identifying specific schools or programs that will either follow different policies or require more time to determine whether more flexible grading policies are possible.

Schools and programs will move to the following grading policy for the Spring 2020 semester, with the important exceptions for Divinity, Law, Medicine and Nursing noted below.

Effective immediately, Spring 2020 graduate courses will transition to a default S/U grading option. If students choose to receive a letter grade for any course, they can do so by submitting a form to the registrar, no later than 5pm EST on the last day of classes or as prescribed by the school where the course is offered.

  • Some schools (such as the Divinity School) have already adopted new policies that provide for flexibility in grading. The Divinity School, for example, has implemented an opt-in P/F grading. Those school-specific policies prevail, so students taking classes in those schools should be aware of any differences.
  • Some schools have grading rubrics that are similar but not identical to S/U. This policy will therefore be adapted to these school-specific grading scales, understanding that the extrapolation will not be exact but captures the spirit and intent of the policy.
  • The last day of classes differs across schools. The last day for you to submit the form to request a letter grade will depend on the calendar for the school in which the course is offered. For example, if a 700-level course is offered within Arts & Sciences, the last day of graduate classes for The Graduate School of April 15 applies. As another example, the Divinity School has implemented a policy that all such forms should be submitted no later than April 1.

Graduate level courses include 700-level classes (taken by graduate students only) as well as 500-level and 600-level courses (taken by undergraduates as well as graduate students). Thus, the S/U policy will apply to both undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in these classes.

Courses taken for S/U grades during Spring 2020 will count towards curricular, major, continuation, and graduation requirements.

  • Current Graduate School policy requires that at least 24 of the 30 credits required for a masters degree be earned in letter-graded courses. A change in this policy will be made for graduate students affected by the Spring 2020 semester. The change will allow for the number of letter-graded credits to reflect the unusual nature of the Spring 2020 semester.  For example, if a graduate student is taking three (3) courses this semester and all three would have been necessary to meet the 24-credit requirement, the number of required letter-graded credits will reduce by nine (9). If a student is taking one (1) course this semester and this course would have been necessary to meet the 24-credit requirement, the number of letter-graded credits will reduce by three (3).
  • There will be no reduction of the 24-credit requirement for courses taken S/U in semesters prior to Spring 2020 or after Spring 2020. That is, the change in this policy is specific to the unusual events affecting Spring 2020.

Faculty will grade students as usual during the semester, and enter the S/U using our existing rubric (where S is equivalent to a C- or above).

Duke will include a designation on students’ transcripts, indicating the extraordinary circumstances encountered in the present semester.

We have reviewed this emergency change with each of our schools and the vast majority are able to move forward quickly with this approach, noting the following differences:

  • Duke Divinity School had already implemented its own version of a flexible grading policy for graduate courses. Students taking graduate courses in the Divinity School will therefore follow the Divinity school-specific policy articulated.
  • The School of Medicine (SOM) is largely able to follow this approach with the exception of clinical education activities where more time is needed to work through the highly disruptive nature of the pandemic and to minimize, if not avoid, unintended consequences to students. SOM will reach out to medical students separately once these issues have been resolved.
  • The School of Nursing (SON) and School of Law (Law) face complex issues with any grading change as their programs are affected by accreditation, licensure, as well as state-by-state regulatory bodies. SON and Law leadership are working feverishly to determine what flexibility is possible. Understand that parties are trying to minimize if not avoid unintended consequences to students. SON and Law will reach out to nursing and law students separately once these issues have been resolved.

There may be programs with specific requirements that we have not called out but which may need to deviate from the policy described above. We are asking any such programs to reach out to their students directly, and quickly, with updated information.

We hope this change in policy eases some of the stress many of you are facing at this extraordinary time, while at the same time encouraging your learning and engagement for the remainder of the semester. More than anything else, we hope you and your loved ones remain healthy and safe.


Sally Kornbluth, Provost
Jennifer Francis, Executive Vice Provost
Paula McClain, Dean of the Graduate School